On a recent late afternoon, St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom walked through a neighborhood with a group of residents.
They pointed out the limited number of street lights, saying the area is dark at night. They noticed a couple of vehicles that had been parked on the street for a long time — one had a flat tire — and Hallstrom checked to see if the vehicles were stolen; they turned out not to be. In an overgrown area, they saw a television and other debris that had been dumped.
Hallstrom provided information about who to contact at the city about street lights and debris, and how to report abandoned vehicles. He also gave them tips about safeguarding their vehicles from thefts.
He’s calling the gatherings “community walkabouts,” and anyone who lives or works in the Eastern District’s patrol area — east of Interstate 35E and south of Larpenteur Avenue in St. Paul — can invite Hallstrom or his staff out to their neighborhood to hear their questions and concerns.
Each of St. Paul’s three patrol districts holds monthly community meetings. Hallstrom, who’s in charge of the Eastern District, usually sees the same people at his district’s meetings and he said he’s grateful they have strong connections. He also wanted to reach out to involve people who don’t usually attend the meetings at the patrol station.
“It’s an attempt to meet the community where they are,” Hallstrom said of the community walkabouts, which he recently began.
GETTING TO KNOW NEIGHBORS
At the Wednesday gathering in the Conway neighborhood, nearly 40 adults and children showed up over a span of an hour. They first met in the courtyard of the Hazelwood Apartments on Hazel Street near Conway Street.
Hallstrom said he could tell they knew one another or at least recognized each other.
“That’s the biggest thing that we can do as as a community is to know who our neighbors are,” Hallstrom told them. “… You look like people who would care about each other.”
Christine Tillman, property manager at Hazelwood Apartments and East Gate Manor — with 140 units between them — heard about Hallstrom’s walkabouts and scheduled the one last week. She hung flyers around the buildings and went to nearby homes to tell people. She also called apartment residents — she knows most of them by name — and invited them.
She didn’t have to convince people why they should attend.
“People are tired,” Tillman said. Vehicles in the apartment buildings’ parking lots have been targeted for thefts of catalytic converters or license plates, along with thefts of the vehicles themselves.
She said they’ve taken various steps, including putting in new cameras and upgrading lighting.
“But they’re not afraid of the light,” Tillman added of thieves. “They’ve been here at 10:30 in the morning.”
CONCERN ABOUT CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFTS
The police department has hosted catalytic converter marking events — they put bright paint on them to try to deter thefts — and Hallstrom said they could arrange to hold one in the apartment building’s parking lot if residents are interested.
For people who have vehicles that are among the top 15 targeted for catalytic converter theft, the St. Paul Police Department can provide a tag that a mechanic installs on the catalytic converter, Hallstrom said. It etches a number onto the metal, which the vehicle owner can register to allow law enforcement to locate the owner of a catalytic converter if it’s stolen and later found, according to a Minnesota Commerce Department program.
“Anything you can do to make it more difficult for them,” Hallstrom said. “If (thieves) look under there and there’s a cage (on the catalytic converter), they’re more likely to move on to the next car.”
There have been about 1,500 catalytic converters reported stolen in St. Paul this year, approximately 500 more than the same period last year, according to the police department.
Hallstrom arranged to get anti-tamper screws for license plates to Tillman, and she said the property’s maintenance person will put them on the license plates of residents who want them.
And Hallstrom urged people who see anyone prowling around vehicles to call 911.
THINKING ABOUT A NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH
After Hallstrom and residents talked in the courtyard, they walked off the grounds of the apartment buildings. There aren’t sidewalks on some of the streets, so they watched for vehicles as they trekked down the road.
Of the nearby overgrown area with debris, Hallstrom noted, “You can’t see in there, so all sorts of things could happen.”
“All sorts of things do,” Tillman said.
It wasn’t immediately clear who owns the land. Tillman said she notified the city Thursday to begin the process of getting it cleaned up.
They turned the corner and walked along a block of tidily-kept yards in front of single-family homes.
“That block’s pristine. If people go down there, they know they’re probably going to call the cops,” said Noel Nieves, who lives in the area. “It seems like when you get a lot of apartment complexes in one little area, it attracts a criminal element,” he added, pointing to all the vehicles parked in the lots as sitting targets.
Nieves said he would like to organize a neighborhood watch of volunteers — another set of eyes “looking out for their neighborhood at night.”
“It gets tiresome because we’re hard working people,” Nieves said of thefts.
People who live or work in the St. Paul Police Department’s Eastern District can request a “walkabout” online at bit.ly/EasternDistrictWalkAbout or by calling 651-266-5565.